World powers sometimes have to fight wars not for some material interest, but for bolstering a nation’s prestige in order to deter more dangerous aggressors. As Margaret Thatcher said after England’s defeat of Argentina in the 1982 Falklands War, the conflict showed that “now once again Britain is not prepared to be pushed around” and that Britain has “ceased to be a nation in retreat.” So too with Reagan’s 1983 invasion of Grenada, which was as much about showing the Soviet Union that Carter-era retreat and appeasement were over, as it was about rescuing 800 American students and forestalling a Soviet-Cuban military airbase in our geopolitical backyard.
The European-instigated NATO involvement in the Libyan civil war was no doubt seen as just such a prestige-building exercise. The EU nations were in need of some action that could show they were, as Jacques Chirac said in 1995, an “essential pole” in the “multipolar world” created by the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s that boast had been exposed as hollow after the horrors in the Balkans––ethnic cleansing, massacres of civilians, torture and mutilation of prisoners in concentration camps––were stopped not by the Europeans and the UN, but by an American bombing campaign conducted under the patina of NATO authority. The subsequent wars against jihadist terror likewise have been American affairs, undertaken against the advice, wishes, and obstructions of major powers like France and Germany. The whole edifice of EU “postmodern” foreign policy, predicated on the “soft power” of diplomacy and international law, is nothing but an exercise in bad faith if American soldiers and cruise-missiles have to be called on to punish aggressors.
The civil war in nearby Libya, with its mostly flat terrain and Mediterranean coastline, seemed like a lovely little prestige-building intervention for the Europeans. The patent sadistic lunacy of Gaddafi, evident in his bluster about exterminating the “rats” in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, added a moral imperative to the logistical conveniences. And an American president eager to “lead from behind” and allow the Europeans to do most of the bombing on America’s nickel, all in the name of “multilateralism,” thrust into the shadows the perennial unpleasant fact that NATO is institutional camouflage for American military power, an organization necessary for those military-scrimping nations that NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson once called “military pygmies.”
Yet despite the downfall of Gaddafi’s regime, the Libyan adventure is unlikely to fool anybody into respecting Europe’s geopolitical clout. Too many unpleasant contradictions and unanswered questions still hang around the campaign. Everyone knows that American cruise missiles and intelligence were critical to the campaign. Rules of engagement designed for political rather than military efficacy, an unwillingness to risk ground troops, Obama’s disappearance, and squabbling between NATO states unnecessarily prolonged the conflict to the detriment of those nations’ prestige. It is unlikely that any aggressor is going to be deterred by a coalition which, enjoying superiority in the air and armed with high-tech weaponry, took several months and 20,000 sorties to defeat a glorified gangster like Gaddafi. As Stanley Kurtz points out, “If this is what it takes for America and its allies to dislodge an unpopular dictator in open terrain, our more dangerous potential adversaries cannot be feeling much fear right now.”
Moreover, the odor of bad faith hangs over the whole enterprise. The pretext for intervention was to prevent “genocide,” yet the real reason, obvious as the conflict wore on, was to remove Gaddafi from power. We heard the pleasing “Arab Spring” rhetoric about supporting “freedom and democracy,” yet we have no clue about whom we have put in power. Are they liberal democrats or Islamists? Who knows? We do know that the National Transitional Council’s Draft Constitutional Charter says, “Islam is the religion of the state, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia),” a statement that negates all the subsequent protestations of respect for human rights. We do know that all the jihadist outfits have been supporting the rebels, and are pleased at Gaddafi’s removal. We do know that tons of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, assault rifles, machine guns, mines, grenades, antitank missiles, and rocket-propelled grenades, are now floating around north Africa, many no doubt destined for jihadist factions. We know that eastern Libya, ground zero of the rebellion, has sent thousands of terrorists to Afghanistan and Iraq, where they have learned valuable terrorist skills. We know that Libya is still riven with ethnic, sectarian, and tribal conflicts, all worsened by the recent war and the inevitable avenging violence to follow, and all to be financed by revenues from the export of 1.3 million barrels of oil a day. Given these realities, it is delusional to think a stable liberal democracy favorable to Western interests is going to arise on the ashes of the Gaddafi regime.
Finally, the pretext that NATO power intervened on the lofty principle of preventing genocide is repudiated by the ongoing nearby slaughter of Syrians by Bashar al-Assad, who is actually carrying out what Gaddafi flamboyantly promised, undeterred by Western condemnations and sanctions. The only consistent principle that arises from the Libyan campaign is that logistical convenience and political cost trump concerns for human rights and suffering, the same calculation that allowed the West to stand by as millions were slaughtered in Rwanda and Darfur. National interest is still the ultimate determiner of foreign policy, and it’s hard to see what interests of ours were served by participating in this war.
Rather than building European NATO’s geopolitical prestige, the Libyan intervention has reinforced its hypocrisy and weakness, in addition to exposing the NATO nations’ willingness to put into power an unknown regime just to gain some moral prestige on the cheap. As for the U.S., a president who thinks a guilty America should cede authority to a bumbling transnational organization and flabby international law has implicated our country in the same hypocrisy and weakness.